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The Passion of Saint John, BWV 245

 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH was born in Eisenach, Thuringia, on March 21, 1685 and died in Leipzig, Saxony, on July 28, 1750. Some of the music in the Saint John Passion goes back to Bach's years at Weimar (1708-17), but the bulk of the work was probably written at the beginning of 1724. It was first performed on Good Friday of that year, April 7, in Saint Nicholas's Church, Leipzig. Bach made revisions on three subsequent occasions (more on that below). Parts of the Saint John Passion were introduced in America by the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston in the 1870s; the first complete performance in America was given by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on June 5, 1888: J. Fred Wolle conducted from the organ, and the soloists were Mmes. Nevins and Estes, and Messrs. Hamilton, Bender, and Thomas. The score calls for tenor and bass soloists (Evangelist and Jesus), a solo quartet of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (arias and the roles of Pilate, Peter, servant, and maid), four-part chorus, and an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes (doubling oboes d'amore and oboes da caccia), two solo violas d'amore, viola da gamba, lute, strings, and organ.

UNLIKE BACH HIMSELF, most of us come to the Saint John Passion knowing the Saint Matthew Passion first. The bigger and more elaborate Saint Matthew, which came along three, or possibly five years later (there is controversy about the date), has tended to cast a shadow in which the earlier work is swallowed up, and this has been so ever since Mendelssohn's Saint Matthew performance in 1829 marked the beginning of the public rediscovery of J.S. Bach. (The professionals had never forgotten.) But if the Saint John is smaller in scale than the Saint Matthew, it is hardly the lesser work in quality, though it would of course be silly to claim that the master of the Saint Matthew Passion had not learned from the experience of setting Saint John. But the most interesting differences between these two towering attestations of faith are differences in intention. Read Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, and John 18-19, and you get four tellings of the last days in the life of Jesus that differ in tone, emphasis, and detail. Much of what gives Bach's Saint John Passion its special character, of those qualities that make it a work even more deeply cherished by many who know it well, can be traced to the character of the fourth gospel itself.

For us, the Saint John is the first of Bach's two Passion settings. But the long obituary of Bach written in 1754 by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel with the help of Johann Friedrich Agricola, one of Bach's pupils, mentions five such works. This is a mystery probably now past unraveling, but our best guess is this: 1. At some point while he was in Weimar, where he was appointed organist in 1708 and Concertmeister in 1714, Bach wrote a Passion, now lost. A few movements in the Saint John and Saint Matthew Passion do seem to go back to that period, and they may be the only surviving portions of that putative Weimar Passion. 2. The Saint John Passion of 1724 (and its various revisions). 3. The Saint Matthew Passion of 1727 or 1729. 4. A Saint Luke Passion. This survives in a manuscript from about 1730 that is partly in Bach's hand, though the music is certainly not his own. Presumably Bach performed it, or intended to perform it, in Leipzig. C.P.E. Bach and Agricola may have mistaken it for a work of Bach's and thus included it in their census. Of course, given his delight in exhaustive cycles, Bach should have composed a Saint Luke Passion. 5. The Saint Mark Passion of 1731, all of whose text and some whose music survive. The complete score was last seen in 1764.

From 1717 to 1723, Bach worked at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, where he wrote much of his instrumental music, for example, most of his concertos (including the Brandenburgs), the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier and most of his keyboard dance suites, the works for solo violin and solo cello, and more. He was extraordinarily happy at Cöthen to begin with, but two things happened to change his outlook. First, his wife died suddenly. Second, the Prince for whom he worked, a keen and accomplished musical amateur, married a woman who cared nothing for the arts, and with that the Prince's own interest in music diminished markedly. Life and work at Cöthen were no longer a joy.

When news came in June 1722 of the death of Johann Kuhnau, the Cantor at Saint Thomas's and Saint Nicholas's churches in Leipzig, Bach presented himself as a candidate for the succession. After much discussion and serious attempts to lure Georg Philipp Telemann from Hamburg and, when that had fallen through, to get Christoph Graupner to move from Darmstadt, as well as taking a look at Georg Friedrich Kauffmann from Merseburg, Johann Heinrich Rolle from Magdeburg, and Georg Balthasar Schott of Leipzig's own New Church, Bach was interviewed, found theologically sound, and duly elected in April 1723. Councillor Platz of the Leipzig Municipal Council remarked with a sigh that since the best man could not be gotten they must make do with a mediocrity. Bach had presented a cantata, Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (Jesus Took unto Him the Twelve), BWV 22, as an audition piece in February, but there is no foundation for the supposition that he was given the opportunity to present the Saint John Passion for the same purpose on Good Friday, March 26. The score was for the most part written in Leipzig and presented on Bach's first Good Friday in office there, April 7, 1724.

The Saint John Passion was then essentially the composition you hear at these performances, although Bach changed it considerably when he brought it back for Good Friday in 1725, altered it again for a performance about 1730, and finally, sometime in the 1740s, restored it to something very close to its original shape. We shall take note of some of these changes later.

The work comprises words and music from many sources. The core of the libretto is Chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel According to Saint John (in Dr. Martin Luther's German translation). Upon this, Bach superimposes an elaborate body of commentary, and for two reasons, one didactic and religious, the other artistic. Regarding the first, the purpose of performing a Passion on Good Friday was not just to tell the story as vividly and affectingly as possible, but also to teach its meaning. That is the function of the added material. As for the second reason, the interpolated arias and congregational hymns require music very different from that used for the Biblical narrative, and the sustained melodies and stable rhythms provide welcome contrast to the looser, less densely composed reciting styles of the Evangelist and the dramatis personae.

The hymns or chorales, as they are often called, in the Saint John Passion come from several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century hymnals. For the other "editorial" interpolations, Bach went chiefly to Der für die Sünden der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (Jesus Tortured and Dying for the Sins of the World) by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, a Hamburg senator and polymath, who published this poem, which quickly became immensely famous and popular, in 1712. (The three most important Hamburg composers of that period, Reinhard Keiser, Telemann, and Handel, all set it to music.) Bach's second source was a Passion based on Saint John by another writer from Hamburg, the poet and librettist Christian Heinrich Postel. For the soprano aria "Ich folge dir gleichfalls" (I follow Thee also), Arthur Mendel, who knew more about the Saint John Passion than anybody since Bach, cites as source Der Grünen Jugend Nothwendige Gedanken (Thoughts Necessary to Innocent Youth) by the Saxon poet and playwright Christian Weise. None of these texts is taken over verbatim, and we do not know who adapted them for this libretto. It could have been Bach himself.

The two layers of commentary, one consisting of arias, recitatives, and choruses, the other of hymns, and the differences between the two layers, give rise to the rich and telling counterpoint&endash;verbal, spiritual, musical, psychological&endash;that is the base of much of the expressive power of the Bach Passions. In the imagery of their poetry and the sophisticated elaboration of their music, the arias represent the highest level of complexity. The hymns are a plainer sort of verse, and they are also the most popular sort of music in the Passions. Even to an American concert audience at the end of the twentieth century, it is clear that they stand for something simple and familiar in style; to the Good Friday congregations in the Leipzig churches of Bach's time they would of course have been familiar in fact as well. Thus, the two kinds of commentary illuminate the Biblical account from two different directions, the arias, being "difficult" and new, offering challenge by their demands on the listeners' attention, the chorales, simple and familiar as the gospel itself, providing assurance and stability.

It is not possible, neither would it be useful, to give a detailed, blow-by- blow account of the Saint John Passion here; as in all vocal music, the way in is through the text. I do, however, want to point out some special features along the way. Bach begins with a grand chorus, "Herr, unser Herrscher" (Lord, Thou our Master), which is a song of praise and at the same time a reminder to the congregation of the fundamental theme of the Passion. This is one of the movements that Bach replaced and ultimately restored. What he replaced it with you can hear in the Saint Matthew Passion, for it is the immense setting of the chorale "O Mensch bewein' dein' Sünde gross" (O Man, Bewail thy Great Sin) that now closes Part One of that work.

Bach reverted to his original design after "O Mensch bewein'" had found a permanent place in the Saint Matthew Passion. These two choruses are strikingly different in character, and not only because one of them is anchored to a familiar hymn. "O Mensch bewein'," for all the torment in its text, is a serenely majestic piece of music; "Herr, unser Herrscher," with its chains of unrelenting dissonance between the two oboes and the turmoil of the roiling sixteenth-notes in the strings, especially when they invade the bass, is full of anguish. Even if it is not quite so miraculous a composition as "O Mensch bewein'," it is, by virtue of that raw anguish, more typically "Saint John." It is hard not to feel that Bach's ultimate disposition of the two choruses between the two Passions was the right one.

Part One, which comprises about one third of the score, takes us through Peter's betrayal of Jesus. It includes three commenting arias, the alto's "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden" (From the shackles of my vices' bondage), whose two intertwined oboe lines hark back to that most characteristic sound of the opening chorus; the enchanting flute-and-soprano duet (actually for both flutes in unison), "Ich folge dir gleichfalls," where the verbs "ziehen" (to pull) and "schieben" (to push) stimulate Bach's delight in musical illustration; and the impassioned and tormented tenor solo, accompanied by "tutti gli stromenti" (all the instruments), "Ach, mein Sinn" (O my soul). This last number Bach replaced for a while with an even more wildly emotional piece, a bass aria, "Zerschmettert mich" (Destroy me), to which a soprano adds a chorale.

These soprano and tenor arias show clearly how such commentary works. The Evangelist has just sung the words, "And Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple," whereupon the soprano, speaking for the Christian congregation, declares her intention also to follow Jesus "with joyous footsteps." This is the more poignant because we know that Simon Peter will follow Jesus only as far as the door of the palace of the High Priest, and that he will betray his master in the exchanges just outside that door. Those in the congregation who knew their Bible would at this point have remembered a passage from an earlier chapter of Saint John's Gospel:

Simon Peter said unto him, "Lord, whither goest thou?" Jesus answered him, "Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards." Peter said unto him, "Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake." Jesus answered him, "Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice."

We hear Peter deny Jesus three times, and at the third time, John tells us, "immediately the cock crew." Here Bach borrows two sentences from Saint Matthew: "And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly." (Bach was counting on his listeners' memories, since in the Saint John Passion there is no explicit reference before this to Jesus' prophecy of Peter's betrayal and the crowing of the cock.) In the difference between Bach's setting of these words here and in the Saint Matthew Passion we can sense, in microcosm, the difference between these two great works: "weinete bitterlich" in the Saint John Passion is by far the more extreme in tortured expression, more extravagant in line and harmony. It is, altogether, raw and unbridled.

Then, the moment the "weeping" melisma has come to rest, the full orchestra bursts out in the same key, F-sharp minor, a long journey indeed from the G minor of "Herr, unser Herrscher," to begin the tenor's self-flagellating "Ach, mein Sinn." Here Bach adds a second commentary from another point of view, a simple hymn in the major key most closely related to F-sharp minor, expressing the wish that Peter's example may sharpen the believer's conscience in the wake of evil. Bach returns to this hymn twice more, once when the crucified Jesus has said to John, "Behold thy mother!" and again immediately following Jesus' death.

Bach begins Part Two with another simple hymn, seeming thus to reduce the intermission to a technical convenience rather than treating it as a great structural division. (In the Leipzig churches a sermon would have been preached between the two parts.) This chorale also returns, immediately before the Deposition.

Now the work begins to move forward with extraordinary swiftness, and as the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate unfolds, Bach imposes a powerful symmetrical design on the music. (This was first pointed out in the study of the Saint John Passion published in 1924 by the German Bach scholar Friedrich Smend.) The chorales "Ach grosser König" (Ah, Great King) and "In meines Herzens Grunde" (Within my heart's recesses) form the outer brackets of this design. Just after the former and again just before the latter, Bach places a triptych consisting of a pair of crowd choruses separated each by an aria: the arias are, respectively, the tenor's "Erwäge" (Imagine), preceded by the bass recitative "Betrachte, meine Seel" (Consider, my soul), and the bass aria with chorus, "Eilt, ihr angefocht'nen Seelen" (Make haste, you beleaguered souls). As we move further inside this design, we find the two choruses, two different treatments of the same musical idea, in which the crowd calls for Jesus' crucifixion. These enclose another pair of musically similar choruses, "Wir haben ein Gesetz" (We have a law) and "Lässest du diesen los" (If you let this one go). These in turn occur on either side of the centerpiece of this grand structure, the chorale "Durch dein Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn" (Our freedom, Son of God).

The crowd choruses, whose chromatic lines thrust their way through the texture, are ferocious. The arioso/aria pair, "Betrachte, meine Seel"/"Erwäge" (Consider, my Soul/Imagine) is Bach's most expansive interpolation, and "Erwäge" is probably the most difficult aria he ever wrote. Bach replaced this pair for a time with another tenor aria, but one imagines that he was finally glad to experience again those wonderful sonorities of the lute and the two viole d'amore. There is nothing else quite so fragrant in either of the Passions, and the rainbow in the aria makes for one of Bach's most beautiful pictures in music. The Evangelist's recitatives are so beautifully efficient as vivid text-carriers that one hardly ever stops to consider them as music, but for a wonderful example of the inspired strokes in which they abound, take the powerful harmonic wrench when Pilate points to the crowned and robed Jesus and says to the crowd, "Sehet, welch ein Mensch!" (Behold the man!).

Nothing challenges a composer of a Passion more than setting the words that recount the moment of Jesus' death upon the cross. Here the narration is simple, even as John's account is simple, without, for example, the "ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?" of Matthew and Mark, or the conversation with the thieves ("Today thou shalt be with me in paradise") in Luke. But the commentary is rich. Jesus' last words, "Es ist vollbracht!" (It is accomplished), are set as a descending scale. A solo viola da gamba immediately echoes that musical gesture, very slightly elaborated and in another key, to begin one of Bach's most expansive and rapturous melodies. Then a human voice, that of a mezzo-soprano, picks up that same descending line, once again slightly altered and on yet another set of pitches, in fact picking up not only the melody but the very words, "Es ist vollbracht," to begin a deep and wondrous meditation. Suddenly the music turns to a vigorous allegro as the picture of "victorious Judah's hero" is evoked. It is central to Lutheran theology that triumph and victory coincide precisely with the moment of deepest abasement, death on the cross between two thieves. This "victory allegro" is torn off in mid-phrase. The alto sings "Es ist vollbracht" once more, this time at the pitch at which the viola da gamba had suggested it in the first place, and that instrument brings the aria to a close, the voice joining it for the end of the last measure.

Bach never wrote an aria more original and unconventional in form&endash;consider just the allegro interruption, the non-conclusion of that allegro, and the daring stroke of ending with the voice instead of with an instrumental ritornello&endash;nor one more powerfully apposite in its pacing and immediate in impact. It is a miracle of unexpected extensions, and the miracle continues, for seamlessly there grows from this final "Es ist vollbracht" the next, simple sentence of John's account: "And he bowed his head and departed." To this, Bach appends comment in another of his most inspired arias, subtly related to "Es ist vollbracht!" in that it too features a low voice and a low stringed instrument (bass for alto, cello for gamba), but very different from it in character and texture. Most concerted Passions offer a hymn immediately after the death of Jesus; here, Bach combines both modes of commentary by setting into this place an aria with a lovely and subtle intertwining of voice and cello, upon which he superimposes a chorale intoned piano sempre by the chorus.

Something we do not find in John's account of the crucifixion is the earthquake of which Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak. Bach the dramatist evidently hated to do without it, for he interpolates here the appropriate two verses from Matthew. The tenor arioso "Mein Herz!" (My heart!) comments on the earthquake and continues its musical mood; the soprano aria with flutes and oboes da caccia, "Zerfliesse, mein Herze" (With tears overflowing) in turn continues the thought of the arioso. In the third version of the Saint John Passion, the one dated about 1730, Bach omitted this entire sequence, substituting a now lost orchestral sinfonia, but restored it for his final version.

We have had rich and expansive commentary, but now Bach moves swiftly to the close of the work. The last great set piece is a lullaby, "Ruht wohl" (Rest well), in musical language that Bach replicated very closely when he came to the corresponding place in the Saint Matthew Passion, "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder" (We sit us down in tears). In the Saint Matthew, the lullaby is the end. In Saint John, Bach adds a wonderful postscript; indeed, he had trouble deciding which of two wonderful postscripts to use. In his second and third versions, he used one of the greatest of his chorale settings in an elaborate style, corresponding to the "O Mensch bewein'" with which the work then began. This is the setting of "Christe, du Lamm Gottes" (Christ, Thou Lamb of God) that we now know as the final movement of the cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (Thou Very God and David's Son), BWV 23. Its loss from a work that gets many more performances than that beautiful and neglected cantata is sad; however, Bach was right in thinking that something simpler was needed after the spacious "Ruht wohl," and what he put here, a simple four-part setting of another hymn, "Ach Herr, lass dein lieb' Engelein" (May angels bear my soul away), is a miracle in its own right. And so the Saint John Passion ends with that sense of expressive immediacy that is one of its most lovable characteristics.

-Michael Steinberg

Contributed by Stevan Vasiljevic (August 2004)

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Last update: August 15, 2004 21:30:00